JULIO Arca has joined South Shields to fill his Saturday football vacuum with the delights of the Northern League.
The former Boro midfielder, now 34, has kept himself fit after hanging up his boots by paying his £3.50 a week subs and playing with his mates at Willow Pond FC in the second division of the Wearside Sunday League. Now the likeable Argentine aims to step up a gear and “still do a job” in the Northern League second division with South Shields and could make his Mariners debut on Saturday at home to Stokesley.
It will be his first game in English’s football’s pyramid since he bowed out at Boro in a 3-1 Capital One Cup win at Preston in September 2012. A persistent toe injury ended his professional career after 185 appearances and nine goals for Boro in six seasons following a £2.5m switch from Sunderland.
But he isn’t the only former first teamer to step down from playing pro to turn out in the Northern League. It used to be a time honoured route for Boro stars to wind down their careers in the Northern League after a season or so at Darlington or Hartlepool.
Pyramid Spelling: Arca joins a list of Boro stars who had a stint in the Northern League
A spell in the second oldest football league in the world was a kind of cultural slow decompression to stop them getting “the bends” after living inside the professional bubble for all their adult lives.
Of course, the Northern League is peppered with dozens of “ex-Boro players” – but these days that generally means lads who left the Academy without a sniff of a first team place.
But there was a time when former first teamers with hundreds of games under their belt – household names on Teesside – made the move, with the likes of David Mills, Bernie Slaven, Terry Cochrane, Gordon Jones and John Hickton among them.
In more recent times players like Nicky Mohan, Anthony Ormerod and Mark Summerbell have “still done a job” at a ground near you.
A host of others who were only fringe figures at Boro found their level and became Northern League champions with the likes of Bobby Scaife, David Shearer, Andy Fletcher and Mitch Cook all big names.
And plenty big names have been signed up as managers by clubs looking to harness their experience and aura with the lies of Peter Creamer (Whitby), Stan Cummins (Norton), Andy McCreesh (Norton), Archie Stephens (Northallerton), Jamie Pollock (Spennymoor) and more recently Andy Campbell (Norton) all cutting their boss teeth in the Northern League.
Stan Cummins – former future million pound player pitchside at Norton
We’ll look at some the players later but first let’s look at some of the attractions.
Firstly there was the logistics. Back in the day – cue Hovis music and misty eyed nostalgia for the ‘O’ bus – players did not move around so readily and Boro’s squad tended to either be fairly local or to have got married and put down roots after five or six years at Ayresome Park. They weren’t go to up sticks to take a one year deal at Newport or Exeter at the tail end of their career.
Second there wasn’t a yawning financial gap between the pro game and the top levels of non-league football. Yes, in the sixties, seventies and eighties Boro players were probably a fair bit better off than ordinary workers – but there wasn’t the incomprehensible abyss of today, even when they were in the top flight. That’s why they lived in Marton or Linthorpe or Acklam rather than gold plated mansions in Harrogate.
Football wages were relatively good but if wasn’t the plutarch’s income of today. They still needed to earn a living on retirement, especially if they hadn’t made a big money move. Which is why they all bought newsagent or became mein host in a pub rather than living off their investments and enjoying a permanent golf holiday.
So in that landscape, having taken a big pay cut from maybe £300-400 a week when the average wage was £200 the chance of earning £100 a week playing for Whitby or Guisborough while still holding down a real 9-to-5 in insurance or running a sports shop ad an appeal that wouldn’t register with today’s millionaires.
And, it must be said, the Northern League was a very high standard of football then. It has slowly slipped down to step five in the pyramid now but before the national non-league reshuffle in the eighties left it politically and geographically isolated, it was among the top two or three leagues outside the professonal game.
Blyth Spartans reaching the FA Cup 5th round wasn’t a freak. Synthonia reached the first round proper twice in the 80s. Whitby even got to the second round in the nineties. Guisborough Town and South Bank both played in the first round proper to big crowds at Ayresome Park in between.
In the past pro clubs even signed players direct from the Northern League. Boro legends Brian Clough was at Billingham Sythonia before he joined Boro and Gary Pallister was at Billingham Town while Newcastle’s Chris Waddle started at Tow Law. There was a lot of real talent in the league – and a lot of the best were happy to stay there.
Back then Top Northern League players who had a day job could earn a decent crust so would often turn down lower division pro clubs offering similar or less money for the joys of a short term deal, insecurity and the dubious pleasures of living in Halifax or Aldershot.
So it wasn’t a massive step down from the pro game. It was still a challenge for athletes with a competitive edge. Plus, it was a chance to taste the matchday buzz, to be part of the camaraderie and the dressing room banter for people who knew little else.
So, you can see the attractions for former footballers. And that includes some very big names with hundreds of pro games under their belt. Here’s a few.
Poisoned chalice: TC breezes in for an ill-fated spell as South Bank boss
TERRY COCHRANE – the tricky winger had a colourful post-Boro career with spells in Hong Kong playing under Bobby Moore and in the US with Dallas before a fleeting stop in Hartlepool and then into the Northern League.
He had a good season at rising power Billingham Synthonia as they got all the way into the FA Cup first round proper before being squeezed out 1-0 to a penalty in November 1989.
He then took the poisoned chalice of the player-manager’s job of South Bank as the arson hit club slipped into crisis, relegation and homelessness. He battled on as player-boss through spells ground-sharing at Guisborough and then Ferryhill before the club – one of the oldest in the country having being founded in 1868 – finally folded after a last day 7-0 thumping by champions Whitby
He later also managed Ferryhill while still playing in the Wearside and Teesside League and was still playing Sunday football with the Navigation at the age of 46.
BERNIE SLAVEN – the Glaswegian goal machine had to quit the pro game at Darlington after a back injury – but that couldn’t stop him scoring.
Bernie signed up for Billingham Synthonia in 1998 and over two seasons banged in 22 goals in 19 starts and two appearance from the bench – which isn’t bad – before a fixture clash with his microphone duties forced him to call time.
Sheeky Shearer strikes for Synthonia
DAVID SHEARER – hard working front man Sheeky Shearer played at Grimsby and Darlington after leaving Boro then joined Synners in 1988 for a four year spell that included their big FA Cup adventures and two championship wins.
Scot Shearer – whose brother Duncan also played English league football – got a healthy 46 goals in 110 games.
ALEX SMITH – Billingham-born tough tackling right-back left Boro to become player-boss of Bangor City before rejoining the pro-ranks for a spell with Darlington in 1974.
After that he joined newly founded Guisborough Town as player-coach and was a fixture as the side reached Wembley in the FA Vase final in 1980 only to lose to Stamford.
He was later assistant to ex-Boro team-mate Peter Creamer at Evenwood before rejoining Boro as kit manager in 1996.
BOBBY SCAIFE – the midfield man never quite broke into the Boro first team but Scaife is a Northern League legend, being involved as player or manager in over 1,000 games and winning the title with both Whitby and Dunston.
After leaving Boro he played at Hartlepool and Rochdale then joined Whitby, where his dad was chairman. He also played for Guisborough and South Bank before starting his dug-out career back at Whitby.
DAVID MILLS – the one time most expensive player in English football (he made a record £500,000 move from Boro to West Brom in 1979) finished his career back at home town club Whitby after signing for ex-Ayresome colleague Peter Creamer in 1986.
He was Town’s Mr Versatile – not only did the ex-striker end up pulling strings from defence but he was also a coach and the club’s commercial manager.
His spell there was ended by his tragic Tyne Tunnel car accident in which his father was killed as he returned from watching a game while out injured in December 1987.
ANDY FLETCHER – the Boro second string hotshot and part of the 1990 FA Youth Cup runners-up never made it into the senior side – but he became a Northern League goal-machine. The ‘handy’ Alan Shearer of the Northern League who helped fire three different clubs to the title: Synthonia, Bedlington and Dunston.
MITCH COOK – the left sided midfielder only played a handful of games at Boro under Willie Maddren before leaving for first Scarborough then Whitby where he was part of the the side that did a Northern League and FA Vase Wembley winning double in 1997.
But Corden – whose dad Dick was a Boro director then later Darlington chairman – had a successful spell at Whitby playing as an energetic midfielder where he won the title. Then he switched to Guisborough where he helped the Priorymen reach the 1997 FA Vase semi-final and then was later manager at the KGV.
RAY HANKIN – striker Ray Hankin was sent off on his debut for Boro at the start of a poor spell as his career started to wind down. He was later also sent off at Ayresome Park for refusing to wear the captain’s armband when playing for Guisborough in a bad tempered FA Cup first round 1-0 defeat to Bury.
Mentioned in despatches…
Curtis Fleming and Craig Hignett (cameos at Synthonia); Lee Tucker (played for Guisborough, coached Billingham Town and Synthonia); Mick Angus (Synners then transferred to the police); Gordon Jones (player-coach at Crook); Owen McGee (Guisborough, Bishop Auckland and Thornaby) Charlie Bell (player and boss at Marske); John Hickton (woumd down at Whitby); Garry Macdonald (succesful spell at South Bank); Ian Gibson (Whitby and Guisborough); Nicky Mohan (Bishop Auckland and Thornaby); Anthony Ormerod (Whitby and Marske); Colin Ross (South Bank and Whitby); Archie Stephens (player-boss at Northallerton); Colin Blackburn (Shildon); Mark Summerbell (Spennymoor, Chester-le-Street); Ted Coleman (Wembley finalist with Guisborough); and as they say on the compilation albums, many, many more…